As part of editing our Equal Bite book about gender equality in Higher Education, I've been reading about stereotype threat and how to overcome it. I just finished reading Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele. It's an account of several decades of psychological research into academic under-performance of African-American students in US universities. Stereotype threat affects the performance of people when they belong to a group which is negatively stereotyped at being poor at a particular task. For example, white sports people, French working class undergraduates at language tests (apparently), women in maths tests, men in situations which require empathy, older adults in memory tests and so on. It is possible to evoke stereotype threat in a lab situation even for activities and groups who might not normally experience it. "Whenever we're in a situation where a bad stereotype about one of our identities could be applied to us - such as those about being old, poor, rich or female - we know it. We know what 'people could think'. We know that anything that we do to fit that stereotype could be taken as confirming it, And we know that, for that reason, we could be judged and treated accordingly".(Ch 1.1).
The consequences of stereotype threat are powerful. It affects highly motivated, highly skilled individuals who are deeply committed to an outcome, causing them to under-perform. Even without encountering direct prejudice or discrimination, an individual can labour under the ghost of stereotype threat to the detriment of their performance and well being. In a situation where a person identifies with a group which has a related negative stereotype , the stereotype will be evoked. For example, imagine a high ability female maths student sitting a difficult exam who has just noticed a cue that reminds her of the stereotype that women are no good at maths. The student then becomes anxious and the anxiety has associated physiological symptoms which detract from performance (curiously, the participant might not be aware of this anxiety even if their heart rate and blood pressure tell a different story). The student's mind starts to race: considering the stereotype and how she doesn't want to confirm it by failing the test, denying that the stereotype will apply to her, suppressing unwanted thoughts, giving herself a pep-talk and monitoring her performance. The problem is that if this happens in a situation where the person needs all her cognitive resources to solve a challenging problem at the cusp of her abilities, the mind-racing slurps up some of the raw thinking power which is needed to solve the problem. She then self-monitors, find that her distraction has impacted her performance and the cycle goes on during that test, and at the next test and in other learning situations.
There is strong experimental evidence for this from a range of sources, with effect sizes large enough to substantially suppress a student's grades over the years of a degree course. It's not that people under stereotype threat aren't clever, or don't have the pre-requisite learning, are unmotivated or don't work hard. It's that the environment that they learn and are assessed in interacts with their identity in a negative way. It is actually less of a problem for lower ability students, or those who don't care about the outcomes of the test. Unfortunately increasing effort to combat it can be counter productive. For example, a series of studies of black students found that they redoubled their efforts in the face of failure and stereotype threat, but that those efforts did not use particularly effective strategies. For example, the black students in the study were more likely to spend long hours studying in their rooms and getting stuck, whereas white and asian students were more likely to benefit from shared cognitive resources by studying in groups.
Stereotype threat can be triggered by environmental cues, such as a low proportion of other women in the room, a low proportion of women in positions of power, or the environment reflecting the cultural interests of the more dominant group. For me as a female computer science undergraduate, this meant noticing that I was the only woman in the tutorial group, that the lecturers were almost always male and that the labs were covered in posters about Red Dwarf. Such environmental cues do make a difference to behaviour and performance under lab conditions: women taking maths tests under stereotype threat in the company of men performed worse. Women scientists looked more frequently around the room and were better able to recall who was present when they watched a video about a science conference which depicted a low proportion of women; the cue of stereotype threat made them more vigilant to their surroundings .
Dealing with stereotype threat day after day is tiring and can lead to vicious cycle of under performing, then possibly drop out. Evidence suggests that it has a longer term negative impact on health outcomes. It is not surprising that there are low proportions of women opting for advanced scientific and maths departments in universities. Even without encountering direct prejudice, the threat in the air caused by stereotypes is quite seriously damaging.
Is there anything we can do about this? Happily, yes. Several seemingly small educational interventions have recently been shown to be surprisingly effective, even in the long term. In an article in Current Directions in Psychological Science, Walton  refers to interventions of this type as "wise psychological interventions". They are based on a specific, precise well-founded psychological theories which have been validated in the lab and then developed to be applicable in a real world setting. The reason that small interventions of this sort can have surprisingly long lasting effects is that they operate recursively. A small adjustment to the way an individual perceives their situation (when applied early enough) can disrupt a self-reinforcing downward spiral, and begin a snowball of positive effects. Some wise psychological interventions are based on the story-editing approach (see Redirect - the New Science of Psychological Change) in which individuals are encouraged to change the narratives they tell themselves in order to address a wide range of social and personal issues. It's based on the assumptions that changing behaviour requires changes in the way individuals interpret themselves in their social worlds, that these interpretations can be fruitfully and wisely redirected, and that these redirections can be self-sustaining, which leads to long term behavioural change.
Here are some examples of successful wise psychological interventions which have important lessons for how we can reduce stereotype threat in our teaching environments.
A successful intervention which aimed to help participants edit their stories about themselves focussed on developing a sense of belonging to the student community . If you're a first year black student at college where most of your classmates are white, or a woman student on a engineering course which is male dominated, you may question whether you belong ( belonging uncertainty). This may well provoke stereotype threat and its dampening effect on performance. If you find classes hard, or have trouble making friends you may attribute these difficulties as being related to your sense that you don't "fit". In Walton and Cohen's study , first year college students were presented with the results of a survey which showed that all first year students, regardless of ethnicity, had initial worries about fitting in, but that over time they settled in, made friends and felt part of the community. This encouraged the students watching the presentation to construct a positive story in which their feelings of belonging uncertainty were attributed to the stage in their academic career rather than their social identity. This gave them hope for the future. Black students who took part in this hour long intervention got on average one third of a letter grade higher next semester than those in the control group. This study has implications for possible successful interventions to assist women studying subjects where they are a minority and which are associated with negative gender stereotypes.
Dweck's work on mindset has far reaching consequences for education in general, and has implications for productively intervening to reduce the impact of stereotype threat. Mindset refers to people's theories about how ability relates to challenge. Those with a "fixed" mindsets believe that ability and intelligence is fixed and can't be expanded: you're either good at maths or you're not. Those with growth mindset believe that it is possible to meet challenges by learning new abilities: you can get better at maths if you practice. If you have a fixed mindset, and are under stereotype threat then you are not in a hopeful situation because it seems as though it is not worthwhile to take on new challenges in case you fail , thus confirming the negative stereotype. If you have a growth mindset, then you have the more optimistic view that you should take on challenges because there is always room for improvement. The stereotype threat is removed because someone with growth mindset doesn't see failure as confirmation of innate intelligence of themselves or their group, but as a step in a journey to improving performance. Luckily, quite short interventions can change people from fixed to growth mindset. Indeed, in study of women maths students, Good, Rattan and Dweck demonstrated that "the message that math ability could be acquired protected women from negative stereotypes, allowing them to maintain a high sense of belonging in math and the intention to pursue math in the future" [4;1]. As educators, then, we need to support all our students to learn growth mindsets in order to help them to overcome the difficulties which they will encounter during their studies. Dweck and colleagues write: "We have found that what students need the most is not self-esteem boosting or trait labeling; instead, they need mindsets that represent challenges as things that they can take on and overcome over time with effort, new strategies, learning, help from others, and patience" [5; 312].
Self-affirmation theory gives us another clue about how to interrupt the downward spiral caused by stereotype threat. This is based on the idea that it's basic human nature to see oneself as good and competent, and that if that perception is threatened we try to repair that self image. Repairing one's self image may involve rationalising and re-explaining events to fit with the view of self-competence. However, it is productive to encourage people to "self-affirm" their wider valued sense of self so that this minor threat to self-image seems smaller and there is less need to rationalise it away. Stereotype threat causes regular damage to one's self-image of competence, so one possible intervention to reduce it is to give students an opportunity to develop a self-affirming narrative. It turns out this is an astonishingly effective intervention. In an experiment with 7th grade children, researchers asked a random sample of children to write a paragraph for 15 minutes on their three most important values (e.g. family, friends, being good at music) and why they were important to them . There were a few similar follow up writing exercises in later school terms. The affirmation writing exercise improves the grades of all but the strongest performing black students, with those with the poorest initial performance improving the most. It closed the racial achievement gap between black and white students by 40%, and this lasted for two years. More recently, Miyake et al found that a similar writing exercise for female college students studying physics boosted students' modal grades from a C to a B .
These results are extremely promising.They suggest that refocusing students' attention on the values that are important to them helps them not to dwell on poor early performances and so frees up cognitive resources which otherwise might get consumed worrying about stereotype threat. This enables a better performance next time around and interrupts the negative snowballing.
Much has been made of poor feedback practices in HE in recent years, particularly because in the UK, national student survey results are scathing about feedback on undergraduate degrees. Negative feedback has a detrimental effect for those studying under stereotype threat - in a study of women tackling a challenging maths test, Mangels and colleagues found that negative feedback was a predictor of disengagement from learning and interference with learning attempts. That is, stereotype threat when combined with negative feedback drags down not only assessment performance but learning itself. Steele describes studies  which found that black students interpret critical feedback on their writing in different ways from white students; they are less likely to trust it and less likely to find it motivating. The studies found that it didn't work to try to be neutral in the feedback, or begin the feedback with a general positive comment. What did work for both black and white students was for the marker to explain that she had high standards, and that she believed the students could meet these standards by acting on the following specific advice. This strategy is successful because stereotype threat is reduced. The learner knows that the clearly stated high intellectual standards are for everyone (not just their group) and that the marker believes that they personally are capable of meeting those standards by improving various features of the work. They have hope, and they have a plan for next steps in their learning. As a related note, publishing clear and transparent assessment criteria along with an assignment helps with the first part of this equation. No-one has to second guess what the marker might be "looking for".
Lastly, but not necessarily related to wise psychological interventions, paying attention to the environment for teaching and learning can reduce stereotype threat. "If enough cues in a setting can lead members of a group to feel 'identify safe', it might neutralise the impact of other cues in the setting which might otherwise threaten them." (section 8.3). A useful concept here is critical mass: which refers to the point where there are enough members of a minority group in the setting so that individuals no longer uncomfortable or vulnerable to identity threat. It's hard to quantify what critical mass means in proportional terms. However, Steele reports studies of the gender balance in orchestras in which orchestras with 20% female members experienced problems, in contrast to 40% female member orchestras in which all members reported more satisfying experiences. For me, this converts into a practical teaching suggestion about allocating groups in classes with minority groups. In a maths class with a small number of women for example, if you prioritise critical mass, then you could have some groups with at least 2 out of 5 female members and many groups with no women.This would enable the women to be closer to critical mass, and would work better for them rather than putting one woman in as many groups as possible. (I did a 6 week long group project in which I was the only women as an undergrad and it was not fun).
Other environmental cues of stereotype threat which we can address in teaching environments is the proportion of women staff members, and the proportion of women in positions of power. This is something which one would hope would be addressed by other initiatives such as Athena Swan; my point here is that women staff members should be highly visible to the students. My point is not, however, that women should bear the responsibility of "fixing" gender balance on our degree programmes. It's everyone's responsibility and so if women staff are asked to teach high profile courses as part of a gender equality commitment, then it should be factored into their workload rather than being an added extra.
There is a convincing pool of research which indicates that women under-perform in challenging intellectual situations where they encounter stereotype threat. This is not a unique characteristic of women, but a general psychological effect which is possible to trigger in members of any group by negatively comparing their group to another. Fortunately, it is possible to reduce stereotype threat by paying attention to cues that might trigger it in our teaching environments, and by using small but extremely effective wise psychological interventions including promoting a sense of belonging, using values affirmation writing exercises, encouraging growth mindset, and structuring feedback in a way that encourages the student to strive for high standards.
 G.M. Walton, The new science of wise psychological interventions, Curr. Dir. Psychol. Sci. 23 (2014) 73–82. doi:10.1177/0963721413512856.
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